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Purdue researchers determine structure of Zika virus, critical advance in developing treatments

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (March 31, 2016) — Purdue University researchers are the first to determine the structure of the Zika virus. The structure of the virus reveals insights critical to the development of effective antiviral treatments and vaccines. It's a discovery making national and international headlines.

Researchers used an electron microscope with an added detector to map out the virus. The recently added detector, similar to a camera, cut the research time dramatically and led to the relatively prompt discovery, the scientists said.

Richard Kuhn, director of the Purdue Institute for Inflammation, Immunology and Infectious Diseases (PI4D)  led the research team with Michael Rossmann, Purdue’s Hanley Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences.

"This is what people want to see. They want to be able to look, and they want to say, oh here's Zika virus. This is what's infecting all of these people. But more than that, it's kind of a foundation for which a lot of people will be doing more experiments," said Kuhn, "Translating what we have done is going to take a few months at the earliest. People are going to develop hopefully anti-virals and new vaccines and new diagnostics."

The Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease, has recently been associated with a birth defect called microcephaly that causes brain damage and an abnormally small head in babies born to mothers infected during pregnancy. It also has been associated with the autoimmune disease Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can lead to temporary paralysis. In the majority of infected individuals symptoms are mild and include fever, skin rashes and flulike illness, according to the World Health Organization.

Zika virus transmission has been reported in 33 countries. In February WHO declared the Zika virus to be “a public health emergency of international concern.”

The Zika virus is spread by mosquitoes. The primary risk is to pregnant women whose children could develop a birth defect called microcephaly from the virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 312 cases reported in the U.S. Of those cases, 27 were pregnant women and six were sexually transmitted.

There are travel advisories for several countries in Central America, South America and the Pacific Islands. Pregnant women are strongly urged to avoid any unnecessary travel due to potential problems linked to the virus.

According to the CDC, most people infected with Zika don't realize they have the virus because they don't exhibit symptoms. Some of the most common symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain or red eyes. The virus may also cause include muscle pain and headaches. Once a person is infected, they're likely to be protected from future Zika infections.

“This breakthrough illustrates not only the importance of basic research to the betterment of human health, but also its nimbleness in quickly addressing a pressing global concern,” said Purdue President Mitch Daniels. “This talented team of researchers solved a very difficult puzzle in a remarkably short period of time, and have provided those working on developing vaccines and treatments to stop this virus a map to guide their way.”

The new detector was a recent addition, as part of a $250 million investment by Purdue University in the life sciences, that will include added faculty, improved facilities and scientific instruments.

"New technology is much more effective, and we are very fortunate that Purdue University provided us the funds to buy a special detector," Rossmann said.

"We believe that we have a huge impact and a responsibility to make an economic impact and scientific impact on Indiana, on the United States, and across the globe," said Suresh Garimella, Executive Vice-President for Research and Partnerships, "It's a very early win."